How it all started
Or, how a person drifts
into a rewarding second
career – administration
by Doug Owram
Doug Owram is deputy vice-chancellor of UBC Okanagan.
He is also a Canadian historian and member of the Royal
Society of Canada.
“One warning that you’re
his is my first column, and the fact that
on your way to admin-
istration is when you can
begin to articulate the
needs of disciplines where
the subject matter is a
I’m to give a perspective from an admin-
istrator’s chair led me to reflect on how I
ended up in that chair in the first place.
As a graduate student at Toronto or a
junior professor at Alberta, I saw myself as an
historian, committed to the discipline and inflict-
ing on undergrads and grad students alike my
beliefs on why every Canadian needs to know
about the Sydenham system or the Great Depres-
sion. Yet, for the last half of my career I have
spent much of my time balancing budgets, doing
strategic plans and speaking to various organiza-
tions on the importance of advanced education.
It is a journey, I suspect, that many university
administrators look back on with a certain sense
How is it that some of us drift sideways into
what is quite a different life than that of the
teacher and researcher? How is it that others
successfully avoid the siren song of administra-
tion, while yet others would love to be seduced
but nobody calls?
Since most administrative careers begin in
the vast committee system of universities, I must
begin there. For many colleagues, the idea of
administration in any form has little appeal.
They do their bit on the requisite committees
but usually avoid rather than seek out further
assignments. Others are more subtle, and after
being appointed to a committee early in their
career, ensure they’re so bad at it that nobody
will ever ask again. A third tactic, chosen by
some, is to declare early on that they intend to
make a career in administration. Their colleagues
will then suspect anything they suggest and
nothing beyond the library-fine appeals com-
mittee will be allowed near them.
After this process of elimination, the field has
been considerably narrowed. The air is so rari-
fied by the absence of colleagues that it’s like a
vacuum, drawing you upward. Departmental
committees are followed by faculty committees
and then by university-wide bodies where you
meet those academics from incomprehensible
areas whose needs, course loads and publication
practices seem so bizarre. In fact one warning
that you are on your way to administration is
when you can begin to articulate the needs of
disciplines where the subject matter is a com-
Eventually, of course, the committee work
leads to appointments. Once again, especially at
the departmental level, you must act the reluc-
tant bride, dragged in “just for a term” and only
because you secretly know that the alternative
for the post would be a disaster! Actively seeking
a post is considered bad form.
So far, all of this can be accomplished while
maintaining a semblance of a normal academic
trajectory. Teaching might be reduced but will
continue. Publishing might slow slightly but is
essential to your ongoing reputation. Eventually
though, a fork in the road is reached and you
must throw off the cloak of reluctance and seek
out senior office. As a dean or vice-president, you
can’t really pretend that this is just a sideline.
And that leads to a whole set of questions, all
boiling down to “what am I doing here?”
The answer is as varied as the individual.
Usually it comes down to the challenge of mak-
ing a difference, always mixed in with the buzz,
the sense of immediacy and authority.